x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

New chapter for Syria-Saudi relations

Analysis: Saudi Arabia's decision to send an ambassador to Syria is a clear sign that a new chapter really is beginning.

Damascus // If America's decision to send an ambassador to Syria, after years of ice-cold relations between Damascus and Washington, signals a shift in the Middle East's political atmosphere, this week's announcement by Saudi Arabia that it will do the same is a clear sign that a new chapter is really beginning. Disagreements between Syria and the US, long-running and passionate, have nevertheless largely been a matter of business, as with warring generals stubbornly fighting for victory but who feel no particular hatred for their opponent. It has not felt driven by personal animosity.

Not so Syria's fall-out with Saudi Arabia, which became something of a mutual personal vendetta. The immediate quarrel broke out in 2005 with the assassination of Rafik al Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister and business tycoon who held joint Saudi-Lebanese citizenship and who was a close friend of Riyadh's ruling Al Sauds. Syria was widely blamed for the murder - a charge it has always denied - and it was seen by the Saudis as reneging on an informal understanding al Hariri was under Syrian protection.

The car bombing that killed the former Lebanese leader and 21 other people brought about a major reshaping of the Middle East's political landscape, at a time of wider regional upheaval. In the explosion's aftermath, international pressure and the campaigning of al Hariri's political heirs and allies, including the Saudis, led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, ending a three-decade long dominating presence.

The pull-out was seen as a significant blow to Syrian prestige and power and, with the US military camped in Baghdad after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, there was talk of Damascus being next in line for a forcible regime change. These were dark days for the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, and Saudi Arabia helped foster the gloom. Saudi-Syrian relations, already severely damaged, further soured in 2006 with the Israel-Lebanon war, triggered when Hizbollah, the Lebanese resistance movement, captured two Israeli soldiers.

Syria, long supportive of Hizbollah, kept up its backing throughout the conflict, to the chagrin of America's regional allies, including Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose regimes all initially blamed Hizbollah for starting hostilities. That put them at odds with popular opinion in the Middle East and made them appear to have sided with Israel. Mr Assad criticised his regional peers as "half men" for failing to support the Arab fighters.

The remark did not go down well with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, who reportedly took it as a personal slight. In addition, the 2006 war delivered a political blow to Riyadh, which after the previous year's withdrawal by Syrian troops had seen its own influence rise in Lebanon. With Hizbollah's ascent after the conflict, Syria's allies were back in a dominant position over Beirut. Underlying this widening divide between Riyadh and Damascus was a deeper feud that just happened to be being played out in Lebanon, centred on Saudi concern about rising Shiite power in the Middle East and a historic rivalry about who should control the region's destiny.

Saudi Arabia is heavily influenced by the strict Wahhabi form of Islam, a conservative Sunni creed that in its most fundamentalist incarnations holds non-adherents, including Shiite Muslims, to be heretics. During the slaughter of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the oil rich kingdom had supported Baghdad against Tehran, propping up Saddam Hussein's army with petrodollars, hoping it would destroy Ayatollah Khomeini and the plan of exporting his revolutionary Shiite ideology. Syria backed Iran during the conflict, breaking away from its Arab brothers and starting its close alliance with Tehran. Syria's ruling elite, despite being largely secular, are from the Alawite sect, a branch of Shiism, which only added fuel to the fire. Saudi Arabia suspected Damascus would comply with any Iranian plan to spread Shiite Islam and weaken the majority Sunnis.

Following the eight-year Iran-Iraq bloodletting, a complex proxy war with troubling sectarian dimensions had clearly developed in the region. On one side there was Iran and Syria, both supporting Hizbollah and, later, the Palestinian militant group Hamas in their war against Israeli occupation, with Syria all the while intent on regaining the Golan Heights, illegally annexed by Tel Aviv. On the other side was Israel and the US, together with America's Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia, intent on limiting Tehran and Damascus and preventing the spread of Shiism.

Lebanon was the crucible for the battle and, by 2007, the proxy war again broke into the open when fighting started in the Nahr al Bared refugee camp near Tripoli, pitting Lebanese government forces against Sunni extremists from Fatah al Islam. Lebanon's anti-Syrian groups accused Damascus of incubating the militants while Syria said they were the creation of Saudi Arabia. By March 2008, Syrian-Saudi relations were so bad that Riyadh withdrew its ambassador to Damascus and the Saudi leader boycotted the annual Arab summit, held in the Syrian capital, a personal sleight against Mr Assad. Later that year a car bomb exploded in Damascus, an attack blamed by Syria's authorities on Fatah al Islam: it was a hair's breadth away from saying that Saudi Arabia had attacked Damascus.

That arguably marked the lowest point between the countries - but from there it began to recover. Syria played a constructive role in ending a Lebanese political crisis, helping prevent another civil war; the French, who also severed ties with Damascus after the al Hariri killing, reopened dialogue with Syria. With Barack Obama's election to the White House, the mood had changed and, apart from the 2009 Gaza War - which again saw Syria and Saudi Arabia take different sides on supporting Hamas - the regional atmosphere had shifted. Mr Obama pledged a sincere involvement in the search for Middle East peace and cautiously rebuilt contacts with Syria that had been shattered under the Bush administration. In return, Syria stayed out of last month's Lebanese election that saw Hizbollah, lose out to the US and Saudi-backed bloc.

With growing American and Arab concern about Iran's nuclear programme - Iran says it is peaceful and civilian, not a weapons project - the region's attention has been fixed on Tehran. Even renewed peace efforts seem aimed less at ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as an end in itself than at weakening Iran's leverage over the Middle East. The US, loyally backed by Saudi Arabia, appears to be following a strategy to isolate Iran. And that means pulling Syria back into the Arab fold. The sudden announcement that Riyadh will return an ambassador to its large Damascus embassy, a short walk from the US Embassy, is part of the gambit; the beginning of a new chapter in which Tehran is cut down to size and Riyadh reconfirmed as the region's powerhouse.

What remains to be seen is whether or not these more positive regional atmospherics, and talk of peace, will result in real change, a change of the fundamental problems that have plagued the Middle East; a cleansing of the bad blood that stains its soil. For decades Syria has doggedly insisted that the underlying situation can be solved only with a comprehensive regional peace agreement that sees it regain the Golan Heights. Regardless of American or Saudi ambassadors being posted to Damascus, or efforts to weaken the Syrian-Iranian alliance, if that does not happen, any new chapter is doomed to have the same old ending.

psands@thenational.ae